Home / Canada / Canada’s Conservatives won’t start winning until they know why they want to win : Andrew Coyne

Canada’s Conservatives won’t start winning until they know why they want to win : Andrew Coyne

There is an imbalance in Canadian politics. It takes most obvious form in the presence, federally and in some provinces, of two parties on the left to only one on the right. But its essence is not institutional but psychological. It is the crippling insecurity of the right, a crisis of confidence in stark contrast to the robust, and growing, self-assurance of the left.
Part of this is simply the accumulated legacy of electoral defeat. When you have lost as many elections as the federal Conservatives have — two in every three, over the last hundred years — it is bound to do funny things to your psyche. But the self-doubt of Canadian conservatives is seemingly inbred, out of all proportion to external events.
Even when they are in power — especially when they are in power — their every thought is to deny and dissemble, to pretend they hold no views on policy or the good society, or none that would distinguish them from their opponents. The Harper era came and went, 10 years of it, without much to show for it, other than another $150 billion added to the debt. They were in power, to be sure, but the policies they pursued — certainly the policies they were prepared to advocate openly — were broadly indistinguishable from those of a moderate Liberal government.
Indeed, they largely consisted of tending to the status quo, ex post Grit. On any number of fronts — on economic policy, on social policy, on federalism, on foreign policy — the Tories, where they acted at all, contented themselves with micro-policies, symbolic baubles aimed at gratifying this or that targeted interest group, or indulged in deliberately provocative but ultimately trivial wedge issues such as the wearing of the niqab at citizenship ceremonies.
But on the big questions, the kinds of ambitious, market-oriented changes that conservative parties in other countries and at other times might have tackled — tax reform, deregulation, privatization and so on — the Tories were and are mute.
I say again, this was while they were in power. The abject terror with which conservative parties in opposition, federally or provincially, view the prospect of taking a position at odds with the prevailing Liberal/NDP consensus is even more striking. Witness the timorous apology of a platform on which the Ontario Progressive Conservatives intend to fight the coming election, which accepts and embraces nearly every one of the Wynne government’s policies, no matter how foolish or how recent.
Conservatism in Canada now amounts to, at best, opportunism. They are in favour of whatever is unassailably popular, opposed to whatever is indefensibly unpopular, at any given moment: just so long as no one asks them to take a risk, a stand, or a decision, to outline a coherent governing philosophy or explain how it differs from the left’s. The one thing they are indisputably for is tax cuts: tax cuts, whatever the weather; tax cuts, without offsetting cuts in spending; tax cuts, even where these are not tax cuts but tax credits, which is to say spending programs by another name. And of course, that sine qua non of modern conservatism, blind opposition to carbon pricing of any kind, in place of which our conservatives offer 1970s-style regulatory regimes.
By contrast, consider the self-confidence, not to say hubris, of the modern left. And why not? They have been running the table with the right, not only on the culture wars, or the doctrinaire obsessions of identity politics, but generally, even on the economic issues that conservatives thought they had settled in the 1990s. The federal Liberals made more than 200 promises in the 2015 election platform, many of them notably radical: deficit spending, electoral reform, marijuana liberalization, and on and on. That many of these were ill-considered, or lies, or both, is not the point. The point is that the Liberals did not fear to propose them, even when they were told they were political suicide.
The recent fracas over funding for charities that oppose abortion is telling commentary on the state of both parties. For their part, the Liberals revealed themselves as both intolerant and fanatical, seemingly unaware that any reasonable person could hold a position on abortion other than the one they themselves hold: abortion on demand, without legal restriction at any stage of the pregnancy, a legislative void unique in the democratic world. But why shouldn’t they believe that? When have Conservatives ever suggested the contrary? Not only do the Conservatives refuse to take a position on the issue, though it is one that is commonly debated in every other democratic country, but they actively discourage anyone in the party from doing so.
The fragility of Canadian conservatives — how many times has one been told “this is a Liberal country,” not by boasting Liberals, but by Conservatives? — has many knock-on effects: the substitution of blind partisanship for ideological substance; a suspicion of academics, and civil servants, though any party with ambitions of governing must have recourse to both; a hostility to the media and the courts, as if the judgments of either could simply be ignored; a broader disconnect from the educated classes, whose support the Liberals are only too willing to accept in their stead; and, of late, a vulnerability to populist insurgencies, which as boorish and paranoid as they may be, at least offer some sort of alternative to the liberal consensus.
None of this will change until conservatives decide, first, what they believe, and second, to state their beliefs openly, boldly, without apology — not with the intent to shock, or antagonize, but to persuade, to convince others not already favourably disposed towards them. Only when Conservatives acquire sufficient confidence in themselves will they be able to reach out to others. Only when they know why they want to win elections will they start doing so.

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